Alex shared a table with Christopher, George and a housemate called Luce, a dwarfish girl with hair as unwieldy as her sense of propriety. She scanned their faces. They too were relieved that the onboarding was over. She turned back to the centre of the student-filled room once more.
James stood there. His shirt was creased, his face was stubbled and his eyes were haggard. Over two and a half days, he’d guided the students through the ins and outs of the coming year. He’d talked about policies, procedures, tools and resources but not without attempting to veer off on countless tangents. Occasional prods from Mary—situated in the room’s corner throughout this period, possibly for this exact reason—were necessary to keep the group on task.
Alex didn’t mind the diversions. James possessed a storied past and she was eager to hear of its insidious rivalries and the reckless intellectual adventuring. Her favourite anecdotes, however, concerned professional courtship. To prise Mary from her flagship role at the head of a renowned college and persuade her to pilot a fledgling institution had been no easy task, even for the ingenious James Barker.
“Now,” said the great persuader himself, “the final thing.” The Q&A session was done. As a reward, James lowered himself into a chair. “Head to the resources section and open the most recent file.”
Alex switched her focus to her tablet, navigated the student hub and opened the document. It was a timetable which detailed their first two weeks at BAIL.
Underneath was a list of the semester’s series and singles. “Series” were five- or six-part talks on a particular theme; “singles” were one-off talks which functioned as a general introduction to a domain or a deep dive into a single concept.
The list was sortable by three columns: title, speaker and date. An expandable synopsis for each talk took up a fourth column. Twenty-two singles were due in the first semester:
- A Collection of Impossible Futures by Norb Hale
- Ancient Insults, Modern Curses by Maro Palamas
- Animate Objects by Gabriel Alain
- Becoming a Narco Kingpin by Don Rosenburg
- Constructing Unrealities by Larissa Yamut
- Creature Building by Carrie North
- East vs West: Endgame by Dai Liu
- Financial Risk Management for Cryogenics by Brevan Cohen
- Fourth-World Economics by Bernard Kollar
- Go Ahead, Make Me Laugh by Kathy Hally
- Living Whilst Dead by Ellis Puternic
- Mindfuck: Mental Expansion and Psychological Dislocation by Hartley Brad
- Noise is Not Sound by Ali Cartenega
- Reading the Mind, Via the Brain by Charley Gogle
- Storage, Meet Entropy by Erika Akamal
- Technology, Both Arborescent and Rhizomatic by Rekha Raju
- The Blood of the Ocean by Auguste Eva
- The Highs and Lows of Flying by Bes Cochran
- The Rise, Fall and Reinvention of Gender by Jacob Ari-Bird
- Voyeurs of Disaster by Hans Landa
- Westphalian Governance: A History by Dr. Abbas
- Zero to One Hundred: The Case for Fahrenheit by Mattias Svensson
Alex looked up at James. He’d leaned forward in his chair and the fatigue upon his face had vanished. He studied the students, jumping from one to the next after a few seconds. Her eyes returned to the list before James could glance her way.
The series were arrayed in the same manner. They were less numerous—eight per semester—but no less wild in their diversity. The first batch included:
- 2 + 2 = Rocket Science by Henry Norlander
- Counter-Custody Basics by Luay Antar
- Everything We Thought Was Wrong by Michael Griffith
- Bipedal Travel to Interstellar Transit and Back Again by Vern Weber
- Parents are Murderers by Peter Bannatar
- Quantitative Axioms of Modernity: A Workshop by Robert Viete
- Stream Entry: The First Step to Enlightenment by Monk Gyatso
The series that seized Alex’s attention began next week, on Monday afternoon. It was the only series taken by a resident professor—James himself—and it was called Hitler, My Hero.
“I don’t know about the Hitler series,” said Alex. They’d been released from the barn. Herself, George and Christopher entered the boathouse in search of lunch.
“Meaning?” asked George.
They queued in front of the kitchen hatch. Alex turned to him and raised an eyebrow.
“I think it’s interesting,” continued George. “Sure, Hitler was evil. But no one goes past that.”
“Why would they?” asked Alex. “What can we hope to learn from him?”
The three of them procured lunch and chose a table. George sat first. He answered Alex’s question with a question of his own. “What can we learn from someone who dominated his opponents, gained massive power, used it to master most of Europe and, in the process, almost wiped out an entire ethnoreligious group?”
She answered as she settled into her own chair. “Yes, George. That’s my question.”
Christopher, who’d followed the exchange in silence, now intervened. “I think George’s point is that it’s good to ask questions that others won’t.”
“Exactly,” said George. A smug grin yielded to his first forkful of food. He chewed, swallowed and held his fork aloft like a conductor’s baton. “The ‘Great Men’ of history have had their lives strip-mined. Hitler’s been studied too, but he’s always painted inside a moral frame.”
Alex’s tone was flat. “You think Hitler is a ‘Great Man’?”
He shrugged and prepared his next mouthful. “A ‘Great Man’ is someone who had unusual influence on their reality.”
George was oblivious to the conflict burgeoning in Alex’s mind. She opened her mouth to reply, to describe her thoughts, but after a pause she decided not to. Embarrassment held her back.
George’s eyes narrowed in calculation. “Say what you’re thinking.”
She sighed. Part of her worried about sounding like a whining child. Another part blazed with the certainty of her condemnation. “Elevating Hitler is dangerous,” stated Alex. “If we allow this, what else do we encourage?”
George snorted. “People aren’t that dumb. The world is different than it used to be. More tolerant, more mature. Besides, what are you going to do about it? Going to tell James that the course is offensive?” He snorted again.
Alex shelved the question for later examination. “Some people are that dumb. And maybe the world isn’t quite as mature as you think.” Alex lowered her head and began to pick at her food. Battle raged in her skull and her appetite was among the first casualties. She didn’t look up as she spoke. “Some things are sacred.”
“Nothing is sacred,” said George, without hesitation.
The words were James’ nominal motto. Until now, Alex had agreed with them. Yet, in this context, they sounded like a normative ideal. Something only someone divorced from contact with the colour of life could hold to.
Alex lifted her head. George seemed unable to recognise the vast weight his words carried. Was he that naive?
“I don’t think James has Hitler worship in mind,” said Christopher.
Alex turned on him now. Her frustration at her housemate’s inability to understand multiplied.
“Doesn’t he?” she asked. James’ mocking face, with chin aloft and eyes glittering, appeared in her mind. “It seems to me that all James wants is the biggest reaction from the largest amount of people. Did you see him after he’d released the series and singles lists? Sitting at the front, scanning our faces, panting like a dog at the prospect of dissonance. Maybe he’s just an outrage addict?”
“Bullshit,” said George. “If you thought that his only aim was to inflame then you wouldn’t be here.”
“It’s not ‘bullshit’,” replied Alex. “I didn’t come here as a true believer. I came here as someone interested in growth. I’ve got a year before college and I want to learn as much as possible in that time. This was the best option. That doesn’t mean I don’t or can’t have reservations.”
“Then why the fuss?” asked George. “You want to learn as much as possible but you’re writing off an idea before you’ve even experienced it. You don’t trust James but you came to his school because he’s offering something no-one else can. Talk about inconsistency.”
Alex wanted to laugh, not at George as a whole but at his colour-blindness. She refrained, opting for a verbal barb instead. “Only small minds are consistent.”
An uncomfortable silence followed. She leaned forward in the hope that proximity could retroactively blunt her word’s edge.
“George, I’m only—”
“No harm,” he said, but his voice betrayed the emotion his face hid so well.
The boys continued to eat. Alex didn’t. She was full of thought. She didn’t want to change the subject—there was more to say—but she didn’t want to step on any more toes, either. She didn’t need to: Christopher finished his lunch and stamped on hers.
“We should just go in with an open mind,” he said, “see what it’s like.”
“I have an open mind,” said Alex, “but having an open mind doesn’t mean I can’t challenge the things I think are wrong, stupid, and-or dangerous.”
Speculation replaced the sparring. Christopher, indifferent to the controversy surrounding James’ chosen subject matter, began to wonder aloud about the rest of their first week and the eventual consequences of their attendance at BAIL. At 1345, Alex interrupted his prophesying and lead the trio to their first core lecture. As part of a sea of other students, they wound their way through the woodland, back to the barn and through its main door.
Linda’s room was one of three small rectangular spaces slotted lengthwise at the rear-right quarter of the barn’s footprint. The original barn and its pitched, wooden-beamed roof, housed the library and took up the whole left half of the sprawling structure. The remaining room, the spacious rectangular one which had hosted them during the introduction and the onboarding, took up the front-right quarter of the building.
Core lectures would take place in the three smaller rooms when the students split down into two groups, but as all twenty-four students were staying together for the remainder of the first week they had to gather in the larger space.
The session began with Linda explaining her subject. Risk Taking in a Complex World dealt with probability, information theory, entrepreneurship and decision making, amongst other things. The first lecture, however, started with three simple questions: “What is risk?”, “What is complexity?” and “How do the two interact?” Its bulk consisted of attempts to formulate answers to these questions with numerical and linguistic rigour. These attempts failed. At the end of the session, Linda assigned a mini-project: chart the effects of the lag between theory and practice in risk-taking domains.
That same evening, Alex sat in the boathouse and tried to do just that. In the process, she gained a newfound respect for simple questions and reflected upon her admiration for James’ emergent methodology.
The remote sessions James had pioneered via his online learning platform were known for their immersiveness. Through an intuitive, integrated suite of software tools, an experienced guide and a committed audience could merge and embark on a riotous tour of the unexpected. With distributed participants, these sessions were electric. But conducted in-person at BAIL? They were something else. Unlike anything, anywhere. She’d never felt such aliveness.
The next morning, as Alex sat waiting for James’ Models and Lenses class to begin, she hoped that the emergent methodology would continue to deliver in such spectacular fashion. For that hope to be appeased, however, James had to be present.
The scheduled start time was five minutes in the past. A palpable unease began to gather in the room but it didn’t affect Alex. She passed the minutes by reviewing the material assigned as a part of Linda’s project. A couple more minutes slid by before all heads turned to the door. James entered, mug in one hand, tablet in the other. He set both on a table in the room’s centre.
“Anyone ever played catch?” he asked.
Alex looked to her left, to where Christopher sat: a single eyebrow had risen in confusion. She looked to her right, to George: he had already acquiesced to the gravitational pull of James’ charisma with a forward lean.
A boy’s voice, reed-like, spoke from the back.
“With a ball?”
“Yep,” said James. He ambled to a corner of the room. “How does it work?”
Christopher answered. Noone else seemed willing. “Two or more people. One throws something to another. The object’s caught and the process is repeated.”
James reached into his back pocket and pulled out a hackysack.
“Like this?” said James. He underarmed the hackysack across the room towards Alex’s table. It thudded on the surface and skidded into Christopher’s lap.
Noone spoke. Christopher picked up the rainbow-coloured footbag and rotated it in his hands. James continued to look at Christopher and, after a moment, raised his left hand like a witness taking an oath in a court of law. Still no-one spoke. James wiggled the raised hand. Christopher chucked the hackysack back. James caught it and began to wander again. He juggled the hackysack from left hand to right and back again as he talked.
“Catch is reciprocal. All players catch, all players throw. The object can be thrown high or low, hard or soft, over a short distance or a long distance, over an obstacle or through empty space. There are drops, fumbles, but the aim is for the object to be caught and returned.” He halted. “The same with teaching.”
After the metaphoric start, James slipped into emergent-mode. He explained the importance of colliding imperfect models from multiple disciplines and then provoked arguments amongst the students concerning the domain-dependency of said models. He finished his first class by setting a legwork-heavy mini-project: assemble a long-list of seminal models from different domains, including justification of the model’s choice and some example use-cases.
The next core class was after lunch. It was taken by Charles and Isabella Bard and titled The Narrative Arts. It began with a verbose description of the student’s ultimate task—“to develop a sensitivity to the narrative arts in all their forms and, by the end, have acquired a capacity to manipulate that sensitivity in others using the different story elements”—and consisted of multiple readings of a two-character play called The Digon Ruins.
The Bards paired the class off. Alex was teamed with a paunchy, ruddy-skinned boy who introduced himself as Tuck and turned out to be the owner of the reed-like voice from James’ lecture. First, the pairs were instructed to read the play with minimal accentuation. Second, they were instructed to read the play in whispers. Third, they were instructed to read the play with the most extravagant, outlandish use of voice and body.
Alex felt odd in the cacophony of performances that burgeoned in the room during the third phase. She was not prepared to release her theatrical inhibitions and her partner, Tuck, didn’t possess the audacity to drag them both to the interpretive heights that the other pairs were grasping for, though he did make a few attempts.
Towards the end of the third reading, as other pairs stomped around the room and exclaimed with pantomime brashness, Alex’s reservations faded. She permitted her voice to escalate to twice its normal level; in response Tuck’s voice became a raven’s squawk.
After the readings, Charles and Isabella centralised attention. They defined the four story elements—character, world, events and narration—and lead the class in an evaluation of the play, citing these four criteria in the process. This, plus the release of a third mini-project—make an argument for the superiority of each of the four elements—was all they had time for.
On the final morning of the first week, Alex awoke in a haze. She’d persisted with Linda’s project deep into the previous night. Her housemates had too, and as they made their way to Arty’s Movement class they were forced to acknowledge the cost of their labour.
Arty’s was the first of two vocational subjects. The academic subjects—Risk Taking in a Complex World, Models and Lenses, The Narrative Arts—emphasised abstract concepts, but via emergent methods were brought down to the realm of the concrete. The vocational subjects focused on practice. Through instruction and experience the students would move in the other direction, from the realm of the concrete up into the realm of the abstract.
There was a caveat, though: elevation of the vocational was expected to be a personal affair instead of a collective one, as in the case of the academic classes. Maps of the vocational world were to remain obscured within one’s self and the mastery of the subject’s terrain was to be revealed through spontaneous performance—a prospect Alex considered alien. Such understanding was quasi-religious: revealed only through the holy vehicle of action.
The Movement class took place in the outbuilding to the immediate left of the barn. Students had been instructed to wear clothes suitable for movement but it turned out that shoes and socks were not needed: the individuals who had entered before Alex had removed them and placed them in a shoe rack just inside the door.
She did the same and looked up. Their teacher, Arty, was sat cross-legged in the centre of a congregation of students. Baggy trousers and a hoody hung from his wispy frame. Alex’s head swivelled as she walked towards him.
The floor, as well as the first two metres of the walls all around the room’s exterior, was matted. Four vertical wooden beams supported the roof and formed a smaller square in the centre of the room. In this square Arty and the students were sat. Each of these beams had regularly spaced, uniform notches punched into them on the two sides that formed the square. From the exposed horizontal beams that crisscrossed the ceiling hung wooden rings, ropes of varying thickness and empty anchor points. In the two far corners of the room were solid wooden chests. Against the wall between the chests rested a thick crash mat. On another wall were horizontally mounted cylindrical wooden beams of different diameters. Next to them hung steel braces.
Alex examined the braces whilst she waited for the last students to file in. She guessed that the braces slotted into the vertical notches and held the wooden above the floor at the desired height. For what purpose, though, Alex was unsure.
“Hi,” said Arty, after the last person had unshod and joined the group on the floor. “I’m Arty. I’ll be teaching you how to move. But because movement is as much about stillness as motion, and because the most basic movement is the breath, the first thing we’re going to do is lie on our backs.” Arty himself reclined. “Hands go on your stomach, eyes stay open but unfocused.”
He said nothing more. He remained on his back, fingers intertwined on his belly, breathing in and out. After a few seconds, they all shuffled apart to create adequate space and imitated him. He must have sensed the student’s imitation because he began to lead the class through a few minutes of breath work. He coached them through inhalations, exhalations and the pauses between the two.
To further soften and warm their bodies, Arty had the class rocking on their backs, baby-like, forwards and backwards and side to side. Then he raised them up. They began to crawl and roll across the ground. Next, they transitioned from the ground to their feet and back down again, at various tempos and under different constraints—both hands on the head, eyes closed, left hand on the right foot.
Observers would have assumed the manoeuvres were easy. They were not. After many minutes of such movement all the class were loose, supple and sweating.
In spite of the exertion, Alex felt relaxed, like she’d regressed into a state where the trials of life had not yet compounded into mental, physical and emotional turmoil.
The next stage of the class took a different tone. Arty told them to form two lines, several metres apart, on opposite sides of the room.
“Everyone stand like this,” he said from his position between the two lines. He placed his feet shoulder-width apart, his hands by his side with palms forward, and looked straight ahead. “Good. The group on the left”—he pointed to Alex’s line—“are going to offer a simple action to the person opposite you. An arm raise, a head tilt, something like that.”
Alex looked at her opposite. It was George. They exchanged weak smiles.
“On my clap,” said Arty, “the group on the right will repeat it and offer their own action in return. I’ll clap again and the movement will go in the opposite direction. Make sense?” Arty looked around but found no objections. “Okay.” He moved out from between the groups and initiated the sequence.
For a couple of minutes, Arty continued to clap. The meek movements Alex offered in this period were reciprocated by George. A circle of her foot was met by a jerk of his arm; a tilt of his head was met by a lift of her leg.
Soon, a rhythm had been established and both groups began to offer more complex and expansive gestures to their counterpart. When it became easy Arty moved the groups closer together and decreased the gap between claps. The decrease in distance and the increase in tempo aided Alex and George—less time to think meant more fluid motion. Arty did this a few times until Alex, George and the other pairs were standing a metre away from each other. At this point he disrupted the symmetry of the activity.
From one of the chests he pulled out wooden sticks, a metre in length. He told each pair to find a space, and he handed one person in each pair a stick. The objective was the same—meet action with response—but the support of a controlled tempo was removed until no stops or gaps remained.
Soon after, Arty withdrew his influence and each pair had to improvise together without pause, one manipulating the wooden stick and the other moving with and around it. George, who had taken the stick first, began with a few hesitant pokes. His jabs were slow and mechanical. Alex gave his movements a wide berth, for her own were just as jittery.
It wasn’t long before Arty replaced the poles with ones half the length, and then took them away, instructing the students to use arms and legs in their stead. This made a marked difference to the quality of the couple’s interactions.
Alex now took the lead and the sweeps of her legs and the swings of her arms reached closer and became softer. Just when this new proximity was normalised and Alex found a rhythm, Arty evolved the exercise again. The students were no longer to move around their partner’s limbs, they were to be moved by them. He had them both take a split stance, with their lead foot and knee mirroring each other, their torsos close and their faces near.
At this point Alex had come upon relaxation. George still had not. His discomfort with such physical closeness was obvious. Alex tried to banish it: when the new phase began she reached up and pushed George’s head back with the tip of her right index finger. He teetered on the spot. George reset and then used his own right hand to nudge Alex’s forward-most knee outward. Alex waved her arms for balance, steadied and smiled. She grabbed George’s hand and tugged it down, towards the floor. He stumbled in full. With a grin on his face, he retook his position.
Last, Arty introduced motion. The pairs roved around the room and each other. Alex and George, like the other pairs, continued to experiment, pushing on shoulders, knees, hips, arms and heads, prodding, moving fast and then slow, applying force to make the other adjust.
Towards the end of the session, Arty regressed them. He worked the sequence in reverse and separated the pairs. Their first Movement class ended with them all on the ground once again, in their own space, breathing through the nose in a state of rapturous calm while Arty issued a vague outline of the work he expected them to do outside of class.
The subtle glow Alex acquired in the Movement class persisted through lunch and through the walk to the week’s final class. This one was called Making. It was the remaining vocational subject and it took place in the outbuilding nestled next to the farmhouse which housed BAIL’s non-distributed admin staff.
Alex entered to find work benches in a grid formation, all facing a longer bench at the front. Each bench had the same drawers and the same array of tools fixed to the sides. Each was apart from the other and supported two sets of four rough-cut cubes of wood. These cubes were of different sizes and differing colour, from a foot-square to two-inches-square, from off-white to near-black. There were twelve benches in total, which meant two students to each one. Alex took a bench with Christopher.
At the front was their teacher, Henrik. He paced, paw-like hands at his side. Stubby, tarnished-gold hair covered his skull and jaw. His head squatted like a spur of rock atop the mountain that was his body. After the students had filed in and chosen a workbench he stopped pacing and faced them.
“My Father built our home.” His voice was a quiet, earthy rumble. He remained still as he spoke. “He purchased the land and set the foundations. He picked the trees that would become the walls and the roof. He cut those trees down and shaped them. He brought them together to make the body of our home. He fitted the windows and laid the floor.”
Henrik paused. He stared at each of the students in turn, as if the impact of his words were enough to reveal all he needed to know about them. Some wilted under his solid gaze. Alex managed a half-smile.
“My father was a master craftsman,” continued Henrik. “He worked wood, metal and stone with ease. I was taught to do the same and brought here to share that experience.
“In this room, you will learn how to work wood, metal and stone, and you will learn to do so in that order.” Henrik paused again. Instead of a wordless examination, he placed his palms upon his workbench and leaned towards them. “Wood is soft, metal is hard and stone is merciless.” He leaned back. “You will spend time on modern materials, too. Plastic. Glass. Composites.” His tone changed, softened. “I am not good with these,” he admitted. “A friend will take my place then. He will also explain the role of craft in a world that wants production at scale.”
Henrik said nothing for a few moments. Alex noticed motion in her peripheral vision. She glanced to her right. Christopher had stacked his wooden cubes into a tower, with the smallest block at the base. His tongue was out and he was trying to place the largest block on top, using an irregular divot in the block’s surface as the balancing point. He managed it, inched his hands away, then flashed a proud grin in Alex’s direction. She smiled in return and turned to the front.
Once Henrik began to talk again, Alex jerked her hand towards the delicate tower. Christopher made an involuntary noise somewhere between a squeal and groan and shielded his creation. A second later, conscious of the noise he’d made, Christopher looked up into the creased brow of Henrik; Alex grinned as Christopher deconstructed the tower.
This last class of the week was immersive in a way contrary to the others. All the students stood mute while Henrik explained the characteristics of the four wooden cubes. They all stood, rooted to the spot, while Henrik gave a rudimentary overview of the tools that each student’s desk contained, as well as the larger tools that were available for each of them to use should they wish—the latter were arrayed on worktops along the rear and side walls of the room.
If described in advance, Alex would have said that such a session would not have appealed to her. But Hendrik’s intensity, his reverence for his subject and the delicacy with which his gnarled hands handled the different tools combined to make a great impression.
With only minutes to go in the class, Henrik told them what was to happen over the coming weeks.
“With your blocks you will make four shapes,” he said. “A pyramid. A rod. A sphere. And something of your choosing. You have six weeks. You have two weekly sessions and the time outside of class you give to the task. You can begin now.” Henrik clasped his hands together and rested them in front of his stomach. The class began to collect their things and leave but his voice stopped them. “Two things,” he said. “One. A rule. No spares. Nature is not infinite. Two. A reminder. This task is about taking away.”
The class waited for Henrik to elaborate. He didn’t, so the majority left and began their first full weekend at the Barker Alternative Institute of Learning. It was not to be a time for rest and relaxation, however. Alex hadn’t expected that. But she hadn’t expected such an immediate workload.
From the five core classes each student had received five assignments—research, sketches of answers to questions, things to begin planning or producing. And if that wasn’t enough, each professor—implicitly or explicitly—demanded their work be prioritised and undertaken with the same level of intensity shown in-lecture.
Alex tried to do this. She spent Friday afternoon and evening, and all of Saturday morning, at the large table in her residence, alternating between research for Linda’s and James’ classes. Once momentum on those projects had been extinguished for the day, she took lunch and headed out to see Arty. Together with a few other students, they collated the verbs of movement and classified them according to function: either locomotive, manipulative or combative. The objective was to understand how simple verbs combined to yield complex sentences of motion.
Sunday morning was a repeat of Saturday morning, with Alex back at the table doing more digging. After lunch, she headed to Henrik’s workshop where, to her surprise, she found six other students. Half had begun to alter their rough wooden blocks. The other half sat motionless, examining the blocks the way an artist examines the subject of a portrait before committing brush to canvas.
She didn’t stay long, however. She needed to recuperate. After the first week Alex was frazzled. Other students were, too. The difference was that she had no issue ceasing activity to promote recovery. This was why Alex lounged alone in the boathouse on Sunday evening.
Christopher had been with her but now he had returned to the library, which was turning into his favourite place to think. She hadn’t seen George all afternoon—presumably he was barricaded in his room, pouring his soul into James’ project, as he had been all weekend.
Other students were present and sat in loose-knit groups, hunched over tables and tablets. They were a world away from Alex’s relaxed state: half-reclined on a sofa with her feet up, using her phone to message friends from home.
After seeing the series and singles list earlier in the week, Alex had shared it in various groupchats and communities. The reactions had been uniform in type but varied in intensity: all exhibited anger and a few transcended to rage. As it turns out, this taxonomy of reaction was not unique to her own social circles.
Throughout the week Alex had watched, first with interest and then with alarm, as reaction to the list spread like ripples from a rock dropped into a garden pond. Indie, niche-orientated blogs and social media commentators picked up the list and posted their takes; larger established sites scooped added their own spin and boosted it; aggregator sites, detecting a whiff of virality, then promoted the most fervent champions and condemners on their own platforms.
The result was that many people talked about BAIL and a surprising subset of that crowd weren’t happy with the liberties that James assumed he could take. This was the point where Alex’s interest turned to alarm and where a normal set of behaviours became abnormal.
After James quit his career in academia he’d adopted the art of the most prestigious philosophers: trolling. He flung excrement and insight in equal measure at consumers, curators and creators across the globe, whilst simultaneously building a platform capable of hosting himself and others who thought in ways contrary to established norms.
Of the general public attuned to James’ antics, most turned away, erasing him from their networks with the rubber of disgust and outrage. Some—the voyeurs and the vultures—lingered, content to watch from a distance, to fan the flames with glee, to pick and peck at his scraps. But a few, a small yet strong minority, rallied to James’ banner, claiming solidarity with his means, insight into what they assumed to be his ends and admiration for his voluminous yet scholarly shitposting.
This already-checkered history combined with the controversy around the Hitler series to create an opposition movement that exhibited dangerous properties. A co-ordinated campaign of online vigilantism sprung up. Across any platform where James and BAIL were present, the same pattern appeared: indiscriminate flagging of content for being inappropriate or violating terms of service, mobbing of user accounts affiliated with BAIL—fortunately, most of the students had so far hidden their attendance—the sending of streams of insults and slurs, calls to desist based on appeals to morality.
Such behaviour was commonplace, fleeting and not at all exclusive to James Barker and BAIL. However, after several days it was on the point of exceeding the thresholds of normal duration and intensity. It was this non-normal sensitivity to James’ actions that was the current topic of conversation among Alex and her three close friends from home, most of whom were active members of civil disobedience and social justice campaigns.
Will there be streams of the HMH series available? asked Rochelle, a member of the groupchat and Alex’s best friend from home.
The five core classes were held for the benefit of BAIL’s in-person students alone. The series and singles, however, would be uploaded onto BAIL’s online platform for public consumption a few days later.
Alex replied with a thumbs-up emoji and then typed: Students get same-day access to raw video. Edited vids and transcripts come after.
Send them our way? replied Saff, another close friend in the same groupchat.
Of course typed Alex.
Thanks Al! It won’t go down well though typed Saff.
??? typed Alex.
There was a pause before May, the final member of the groupchat, answered. Barker’s pushing his luck.
Trolls get hunted. was the explanation Saff offered.
He’s being hunted? asked Alex.
Hitler, My Hero? was Saff’s retort.
I see your point. wrote Alex, though she wasn’t sure whether she subscribed to it. Gotta go. Long weekend, lots of work, early start. I need ZZZs.
Home visit soon? asked Rochelle. She followed it with a string of party-themed emojis.
Alex smiled. Maybe. Busy here.
We’re busy too you know, wrote Saff.
Doing what? asked Alex.
Hunting… replied Saff.
Alex laughed aloud at the slew of emojis, GIFs and pictures that followed in the wake of that last message. She pocketed her phone and rose.
Her thoughts were uneasy as she returned to her residence, wound down and climbed into bed. Alex thought back to the justice campaigns she had watched unfold over the last few years. She thought of the groups and crowds her friends now allied themselves with. They were the same groups Alex had turned her back on in order to come to BAIL.
She remembered her friend’s faces when she’d told them of her decision, and its reasons. Alex knew they supported her but their support wasn’t entirely selfless. They saw her as a mole, as one of their own hiding as one of the Other, and she knew that they expected privileged access. But would she give it?
Alex always had a problem with the burden of other people’s expectations. So, she guessed, did James. He was ever fierce in his defiance. But at what point did his ferocity become folly?
Alex couldn’t recall many people who’d stood up and stayed up, who’d been able to withstand multiple waves of socially administered righteousness. Most drowned. Some fought, but they were torn apart, their life left in tatters. A few ducked the waves and swam into obscurity. Was any other outcome possible?
Could a person use the waves as a portal to a higher plane and not be forced to relinquish the gains in the future? Some had tried it, of course, but their eventual fall had only been uglier, more sordid, more savage as a result. Could James do the unprecedented?
Alex imagined him, then, alone on a nameless beach, watching the approach of a tsunami. There was no panic upon his face, nor was there a wry smile or gritted teeth. He just stood. A man content to be where he was. At ease, nerveless despite being in the path of an undeniable force.
In bed, warm and comfortable, Alex wondered what would happen to this imaginary James. She didn’t find out. Sleep took her mind before the tsunami crashed upon the shore and upon the man.